"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nova Scotia Connections: Biography of a Story – Reading “In the Village” – Part 5

Every morning I take the cow to the pasture we rent from Mr. Chisolm.

This brief section is also set inside the home. It is “Every morning” and “This morning” ─ the sun is rising again, the day “brilliant and cool.” Indeed, the sun ─ the mother, “She” ─ appears, smiling (sunny), an echo of grandmother’s laugh. However, the sun still wears black (it is eclipsed). Essentially, nothing has changed.

The child is engaged in her usual morning ritual: porridge and preparation for chores. The grandmother and child are alone until the mother appears and tries to participate in the familiar routine: “She...feeds me the rest of the porridge herself.” The child resists the mother’s attempts to see how much she has grown (an oblique but poignant demonstration of her absence). Rather than linger with the adults marvelling over her, she “slide[s] out from under them” and escapes to her chores, escapes to the wider world – the main chore being taking the cow to pasture.

This section functions as a transition, or bridge, between all the interiors of the previous sections. The natural or elemental world has not been absent, but, essentially, except for the first section, the story has unfolded by revealing a set of inner, home-made spaces. The return of direct dialogue frames the dilemma for the child who wants both to “Hurry up” and leave, and also to “Wait a minute” and linger. The pull of outside is too strong however ─ as it is for most children.

This section begins and ends with Nelly the cow, a creature immensely fascinating to the child (just as the horse in the blacksmith shop). Nelly is always just what she is ─ transparent yet mysterious: she “could probably go by herself just as well,” yet she “is waiting for me in the yard, holding her nose just under in the watering trough.” Young as she is, the child has her domestic tasks to perform. These are a satisfaction, even a salvation: “I like marching through the village with a big stick, directing her.”

Scrabble Hill Road, Nelly's route through the village.


Nelly looks up at me, drooling glass strings. She starts off....

Having slid out from under, the child goes off on her march through the village. What follows is the longest section of the story (about five pages), which describes the child’s full immersion in this village, how much she is a part of it. The sensory and elemental matrix reaches its apogee on this journey ─ which is simply a child taking a cow to pasture, but which is also a metaphor for all journeys. The structure of this journey resembles the journey Bishop wrote about in “The Moose”: the evocation of the landscape and community; the memory of all that “talking, in Eternity”; and the revelations produced by a mysterious creature. Nelly does not appear suddenly; she is there all along (how many times have they made this walk? for it is “Every morning” and “This morning”). In the end, though they shared part of the journey, they must part: “she goes off to join a black-and-white friend she has here.” This section reveals that the specific journey Bishop described in “The Moose” had in fact happened over and over to her when she was a child.

This section contains a number of echoes from previous sections. The Presbyterian church “dazzling....and secretive” reappears; its steeple “like one hand of a clock pointing straight up.” Overalls reappear “hang[ing] high up in the air on hangers.” “Forever” also surfaces “in one fell swoop.” “Complete houses” with “rooms inside”; shoes and hats mostly in bright colours, though there are black ones; and the “unlovely guilded red and green books, filled with illustrations of Bible stories” all reappear. The child has accumulated a comprehensive set of touchstones. This journey gives her many more: the “black iron fence with open work four-sided pillars” looking like “birdcages for storks”; the deaf, old dog Jock who is beloved by his owners and has “caterpillars for eyebrows”; the “unhappy apple trees”; the view of Minas Basin “with the tide halfway in or out”; and all the people she meets and talks with along the way: Rev. Gillespie, Miss Spencer, Mr. McLean, Mr. Chisolm, Miss Ruth Hill.

The child’s senses are on high alert, taking in every shade of colour: gray, blue, gray-blue, greenly, pink and blue, yellow, flamingo-colored, black, navy blue, dark-green, black and white and yellow ─ and on and on, reaching the exquisite description of the view with its sky blue and lavender-red (more echoes). The child listens intently to every sound “in the quiet morning”: “Switch. Switch”; “Whack!”; “Flop, flop”; “Smack. Smack. Smack. Smack.”; “deep, cracked, soft barks”; “mooing”; and all that talk, those pleasant or unsettling conversations with neighbours and friends. Taste and touch are less direct but still present, clustered in the arrival at the pasture: the “scratchy and powerful” taste of mint, the “scratchy and powerful” lick of Nelly’s tongue. Smell is implied everywhere.

This journey traverses both the human, home-made world and the natural, elemental world. While separate, these worlds still closely co-exist in the village. The road (the path of the journey) is defined by the “dark, thin old elms; grass grows long and blue in the ditches.” Miss Spencer’s house is defined as much by the lilacs outside as by the hats inside its windows. The Chisholm’s back yard is inextricably linked to its perspective of the wider world: “one always stops to look at the view” ─ the vista of elemental sky, sea, earth. The vast marshes and tide hold within them the constructed faith of the inhabitants ─ you can’t see one without the other. Only in the pasture, “the squishy, moss-covered...swampy part,” is the child potentially separate from the human world ─ a tempting wild place to stay and play in, but the child knows the pull of her family cannot be ignored.

The details of this lengthy section (just as with the shorter ones) cannot be fully disentangled ─ nor should that be any reader’s or scholar’s aim. This reading manages only to note the interconnections on a superficial level. The pervasive paradox Bishop grapples with is everywhere here: the healing yet destructive and ultimately disinterested elements outside are linked with the painful, comforting and charged circumstances inside. This knowledge is etched in “Mrs. Chisolm’s pale frantic face” and Mr. Chisolm’s sombre prayer. Even staring intently into Nelly’s “unexpressive” face generates mixed feelings in the child. The pasture is both safe and lonely.

The structure of this journey appears to be linear ─ the child walks along a road to an apparent destination. But she must return, circle back to what she left. Did she ever really leave? The hand of a clock might be straight, but time spins through the day. One day follows another, but memory returns us to what was. The tide ebbs and flows. Bishop locates the old adage “Time and tide waits for no man” ─ a saying she likely heard in the village ─ in her own experience. She explores the implications and ramifications of this reality.

The view from Scrabble Hill, looking towards Cobequid Bay.

This section ends with the child nearly back home again, visiting with her mother’s friend. This quiet closure to the expansive journey puts the child back in her family circumstances, but not in an unhappy way. The child once again is begifted: ring, coin, and now “a Moirs chocolate.” The community is aware of the sadness and reaches out to the child in various ways. This friend gives the child more than a gift of a sweet. She gives her a sweeter gift: concern and loyalty, and even more, “a funny story about when they were little.” The child is given a direct link to her mother’s past ─ a memory, a story ─ of a time when she was not ill, a time when the mother was, perhaps, the same age as the child. The child returns to the house itself wiser about her mother, though still powerless to make use of that wisdom. Still, she tries. (It was left to the adult Bishop, the poet, to make use of the wisdom by writing “In the Village” and begifting her readers.)


That afternoon, Miss Gurley comes and we go upstairs to watch the purple dress being fitted again.

This section could be described as an interlude of hope ─ just maybe, the child thinks, “Everything will be all right.” “This morning” has turned into “That afternoon” ─ the same day of the “immense, sibilant, glistening loneliness.” The child re-immerses in home life. The dressmaker is back, “cheerful and talkative”; indeed, “everyone talks and laughs.” Bishop signals the possibility of “all right” in two ways: “The dress is smaller now” ─ it has begun to take on manageable, defined boundaries, the fabric has shape. The other signal is the direct talk among the women with its words “becoming” and “change.” Change is a colour. It is also a dress: “the purple is real, like a flower.” All this hope floats around the mother who has been distilled again, this time to her “thin white hands.” These hands are like the ghosts of her illness.

The child takes in this hope, registers the possibility, but registers, too, its complexity. Her gaze falls on “a gleaming little bundle of flat, triangular satin pillows ─ sachets” (a gift to the mother from Boston ─ an echo of the place where the illness began). Each moment in our lives is a “different faint color” and “a different faint scent.” But life cannot be lived discretely: “But tied together the way they came, they make one confused, powdery odor.” Just as the horse travels in his “cloud of odor,” so we are carried in “one confused, powdery odor.”

The mother ─ “She” ─ strangely participates in this hopeful tableau (“She walks slowly up and down.”), yet is also somehow, through her reflection in a mirror, “miles and miles away.” And her thin white hands seem to embody her desperation, “‘I have no idea!’ It turns to a sort of wail.” Can change (hope, possibility) be real if the scream persists?

Immediately, as the wail is heard, the woman’s voices “soothe” and the blacksmith offers “Light, musical, constant sounds.” Interestingly, at this very point the focus shifts to the child, as though a camera lens has turned from the tableau to the audience. Though the child has been appealed to already, here she is directly brought into the possibility of hope. She herself recognizes that the request she receives is a good sign. Moreover, the errand in service to the mother’s whim for humbugs is something she can do. She is not, after all, entirely helpless.

This errand takes the child back outside ─ into the village. Unlike the meandering walk to and from the pasture, this errand is a commission (with stress on mission), and the child is determined to carry it out. Even the fascinating blacksmith shop will not distract her. The only concession to her abundant curiosity is “to slow down long enough to find out the years on the pennies.” King George reappears ─ the authority of Empire and commerce. We are brought into the commerce of the world almost from birth. The irony of this errand is that it is a forerunner of a similar, but much sadder errand in service of the mother.

The remainder of the section describes Mealy’s (“Her real name is Amelia”) shop and the execution of the errand. There is much to see and hear: Mealy’s bell in a echo of the “musical” sounds of the blacksmith shop and of the cow bell “chiming”; the shop itself is a precursor for another cosy, curious, communicative site ─ the post office ─ which will be part of the future sad errand. The details still appeal to the child, but there are decisions to make. The child’s urgency prevails over her desire to observe: “I must get back quickly, quickly.” The errand completed, she “start[s] hopefully back.”

This trip to and from is the same pattern of the previous section (a walk through the village). Both the child’s senses and the world’s elements are “constant”; but the child’s focus is on the mother, on an inner imperative: hope and urgency. Where the mother had ebbed and flowed in and out of the child’s life, the child herself ebbs and flows in the village. And our emotions ebb and flow ─ loneliness and hope, back an forth.

Note: Like John, I am away for a couple of days. I will post Part 6, the final part of this reading of "In the Village," later in the week.

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